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New life for old seats

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Segregated theatre seating conservation

National Museum conservators brought new life to some long-forgotten seats from Bowraville's Ray-Mond Theatre. This movie theatre provided wooden seats for Indigenous patrons and plush seats for others. These two types of seats provide a striking demonstration of racial segregation.

The seats were stored under the theatre for 40 years before being prepared for display in From Little Things Big Things Grow in 2009. Here, conservators share details of the conservation process through photographs and notes.

Three theatre seats lined up in a laboratory.
The upholstered seats before treatment. Photo: Peter Bucke.

The seats before conservation

The Bowraville theatre seats arrived at the National Museum in Canberra in various states of disassembly and decay. The seats were used in the Bowraville theatre until 1965, at which time they were removed and stored in the building's basement.

The dilapidated appearance of the seats and their components presented a challenge to conservators, who were charged with preparing them for display in the exhibition.

However, the original gold-coloured paint of the cast iron seat supports, a sense of the plush velour upholstery and some traces of original colour and finish on the wooden armrests, were all evident. These physical traces provided the basis for formulating the conservation approach.

See the theatre seats before conservation

One of the theatre seats with a label tied to its arm.
Each chair was labelled before being taken apart. Photo: Peter Bucke.

The conservation approach

Conservators examined the seats and assorted parts and found enough in a stable and original condition to prepare three complete conjoined seats.

This allowed for one row of the wooden seats and another of the plush upholstered seats to be displayed in the exhibition.

From Little Things Big Things Grow is a travelling exhibition, which meant conservators had to take into account constraints and requirements associated with a touring schedule beyond the National Museum.

After examining the available seat components, conservators systematically labelled each piece and took them apart for treatment.

A conservator points a heat gun at a metal seat component.
Conservator Peter Bucke works on a cast iron seat component.
Photo: Karolina Kilian.

Metal and wood conservation

The cast iron seat supports were brush vacuumed, then washed in a cleaning solution and heat dried. They were then lightly coated with hot, clear wax.

The metal upholstery studs and tacks had corroded, so they were treated with a complexing agent to prevent further deterioration.

Similar treatment was applied to the screws used to assemble the various seat components.

The wooden armrests were brush vacuumed and then washed using a damp microfibre cloth. However, they were not coated. It was found that the appearance of the wood was appropriate to the used condition of the seats after a life of service to theatre goers and a long period of storage.

View photos of the metal and wood conservation process

A conservator presses blotting paper onto a seat cushion.
Conservator Carmela Mollica uses blotting paper to absorb excess moisture off the seat cushion.
Photo: Karolina Kilian.

Textile conservation

The padded seat components presented a great challenge to the National Museum's textile conservators. The original colour and pile of the fabric had faded and worn considerably.

The padded seat backrest and squab cushions chosen for display were relatively stable, although they were dirty from dust and cobwebs. There were also some splits and fragile areas.

Careful cleaning, using low vacuuming and fine brushes, was followed by gently manipulating the velvet fabric with a damp micro fibre cloth. Remaining moisture and released in-ground dirt were absorbed into blotting paper.

All damaged and fragile areas were stabilised using fine thread and light-weight conservation fabric.

View photos of the textile conservation process

Three reddish-coloured upholstered seats.
The reassembled seats.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

Ready for exhibition

The aim of the conservation treatment was to stabilise the chairs and present them as if they had come straight from use in an old movie theatre.

The treatment enhanced the overall appearance of the chairs and staff enjoyed working on a complex object that included a range of different materials.

View photos of the reassembled seats

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